In the 1937 General Elections, held in the wake of the passing of the Government of India Act 1935, the Indian National Congress swept the polls, trouncing the Justice Party then in power in the Madras Presidency. Revered Congress leader Rajaji formed the government as the Premier or Prime Minister (the expression Chief Minister came into use only after India became a Republic on January 26, 1950).
One of the first legislative measures he introduced was Prohibition. With Prohibition as the central theme, filmmaker Y.V. Rao made Swarnalatha in which he played the lead. A man of varied talents, Yaragudipati Varada Rao (1903-1979) thought ahead of his times. He was the first in India to make motion pictures in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Konkani and Hindi, apart from silent movies. He had the honour of directing the first Kannada talking picture, Sathi Sulochana, in 1934. He was also the first to make a movie about the movie world, titled Viswamohini , in 1940 when most other South Indian films revolved around gods, kings and demons.
His epoch-making movies include Chintamani (1937), which not only created box-office records but also elevated its hero M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar to superstardom, and Savithri (1941), in which he introduced noted Hindi and Marathi movie star Shantha Apte in the title role. That was not all. In a daring move, he cast the legendary M.S. Subbulakshmi in the role of Narada. The latter years of Rao's career saw a decline, marked by marital discord and legal cases. He separated from his wife Rukmini. Many projects that were announced did not take off, and the few that did, fared badly. Besides, with advancing age, his health deteriorated and he passed away in 1979.
Swarnalatha also created history for being the first movie to be shot at the famous Newtone Studios, Kilpauk. The studio was established by brilliant technicians — art director F. Nagoor, cinematographer Jiten Bannerjee, and audiographer Dinshaw K. Tehrani, with funds provided by M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and R.M. Ramanathan, who actually worked as a sound recordist there on many a film.
There was a time when this studio was the busiest, with movies in almost every South Indian language being shot here. The studio was for some time leased to top filmmaker A. Bhim Singh who made many of his films here. Later, the senior government official who owned the land donated it to Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Now the Bhavan-run Rajaji School stands on that site.
The script of Swarnalatha was written by Ayyalu Somayajulu, a close associate of Rao, who was quite active in those days and even directed films. The lyrics were penned by Yaanai Vaidyanatha Iyer and the music was composed by the famed Harikesanallur Brothers.
Jiten Bannerjee handled the camera; Dinshaw Tehrani was in charge of audiography; and Nagoor was the art director.
This film was produced under the joint banner of Rajendra Film Company and Mahalakshmi Studios about whom not much is known today.
As for the story, it’s about a rich man's son Somu, who squanders all his money. He and his lover, Swarnalatha, are reduced to beggary. On October 1, 1937 when Prohibition was introduced, the hero, heroine and others are surprised to find that all taverns have been turned into tea stalls! A nephew of the rich man promotes Ananda Nilayam, a society to help alcoholics, abandoned women, and kids. He encourages the hero to reform. Noted musician Vidwan Srinivasan plays a Congress worker, dressed in khaki and Gandhi cap, and sings quite a few songs highlighting the evils of drinking.
Despite the direction and effective portrayal as the hero by Rao and impressive technical credits, Swarnalatha did not fare well. However, it earned a footnote in the history of Tamil cinema as the first film to have been shot at Newtone Studios.
Remembered for: The theme of the movie, impressive acting by Y.V. Rao and others.